Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Bird

The fantastical, mechanical, musical world of Tim Laursen.

A mechanical great blue heron flaps its wings, tucked away behind South Mountain Company in West Tisbury. The bird, perched atop a sturdy pole, has a seven-foot wingspan and remarkably lifelike movements. The motion is powered by solar energy from nearby rooftop solar panels, but a crank allows humans to take over and measure the force of their own energy against the sun’s. Sunbird, as it is called, isn’t Tim Laursen’s first mechanical sculpture. He’s also created a menagerie of exotic, robotic musical installations, many of which will be viewable at the MV Mini-Maker Faire at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury on May 7. But Sunbird’s movements may be Laursen’s most refined to date, and if all goes according to plan, at some point in the near future the bird will migrate across town to the parking lot of up-Island Cronig’s.

South Mountain Company president John Abrams commissioned Laursen to build Sunbird in 2012. A modest portion of the money came from the bequest of Madeline Blakely Heath, for whom South Mountain had built an affordable solar home in 1980 and who wanted to fund an educational demonstration of solar energy. “We wanted to do something beautiful and kinetic as part of a demonstration of what solar energy does,” Abrams said. “Tim put his heart and soul and magic into this.”

That and two thousand hours of work, according to Laursen, who was born and raised on the Island and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2002. He now divides his time between two waterfront communities: the Vineyard, where he spends summers, and New York City, where he works and practically lives out of his studio in a repurposed industrial building opposite the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

If all goes according to plan, Laursen’s Sunbird will move to a new roost at up-Island Cronig’s some time this summer.
Maggie Shannon

Growing up on the Vineyard, Laursen palled around with Everett Whiting (and still does), and counts his friend’s father, landscape artist Allen Whiting, as an early mentor and friend. “We would just drive around and drink coffee and he would talk to me about art all the time,” said Laursen.

His own parents were supportive too. “I was always building things and my mom and dad let me get through those really awkward years where I was making huge messes and building stuff that no one wants around the house. I am grateful for them every day,” he said. Laursen first explored industrial arts at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. “I was putting on a helmet and welding in between study hall and Spanish class.”

His friendship with Everett Whiting also led, somewhat serendipitously, to Laursen’s other career. Six years ago, he and Whiting started Local Smoke, a small catering company that specializes in roasting whole pigs Whiting raises on the Vineyard. They set up a booth at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair and immediately became a crowd favorite. Now Laursen has a separate catering company, Smoak, and works part-time as a caterer both in New York and on the Vineyard. “Catering has been a sort of surprise career, and it’s been really fun. I love the parties, and every event is different,” he said.

“And if I hadn’t happened into it, there’s no way I could afford to do my art.”

Laursen has a successful side business as a caterer and a builder of custom smokers.
Devin Yalkin

Part of the appeal of catering lies in the original, custom-designed equipment Laursen uses to make food. To that end, he has a side business creating wood-fired steel smokers for restaurants in New York City. “It’s a lot of fire and sparks,” he said.

Laursen has a relaxed demeanor, but is serious and focused when it comes to his art. “Anything I get into I tend to really obsess about, and it’s all I want to be doing. I can work all night, and it’s sometimes torturous but mostly fun.”

Sunbird, he said, grew out of the Vineyard landscape. “It’s this quiet, simple, elegant piece, and my whole upbringing here was on a lot of simple open fields and it just felt like it fit in,” he said. He also drew on his knowledge from film school of animation techniques to simulate a bird in flight. “I wanted to take one simple movement in nature and capture it as best I could. I really understood movement and the weight of things, so I built a big metal bird sculpture that flies.”

As with his other sculptural works, he used primarily everyday materials, mostly from supply yards. He mentioned reading Herman Melville, who he said characterized Vineyarders as resourceful builders: “He wrote that they can make do with anything that you give them, like a scrap of fabric and a splinter of driftwood and they can build a shelter.” Laursen likes to think that Melville would have described him similarly. “I thought, ‘All right, I am going to use these old machine parts and really basic metal shapes to build and animate this thing,’” he said.

Maggie Shannon

He completed Sunbird more than a year ago, and is understandably thrilled that it seems the sculpture will finally find its permanent home in a more visible location. “Sound my heart makes when exploding from joy,” he wrote in a recent email confirming that the permitting process for solar canopies and the sculpture installation at up-Island Cronig’s was complete.

Not that he hasn’t been busy in the intervening months. The creation of Sunbird was actually a bit of a sidetrack from an ambitious multi-year project involving the musical sculptures already mentioned. It will ultimately be a traveling performance art piece that is best described by Laursen himself.

“I’m building a band,” he said. “I spent many years in bands touring and stuff. When I got back to the kinetic sculpture, I wanted to find a way to combine sculpture and music. I’ve been prototyping the parts – all the building it and doing a few shows and taking some pictures.

“It’s going to be a traveling performance art piece. We’re going to have vocals and guitars. But all the percussion and the stage props, the drums are sculptures. Anything I want. They’re starting to take shape. I’m picturing some big, god-like heads. Maybe a tree with characters.”

Devin Yalkin

Eventually there will be seven sculptures that perform seven songs, he said. Some of the elements of the piece can already be seen at, and according to Laursen the public response to the few partial performances has been enthusiastic. “People crush their beer cup and scream and can’t look away,” he said. “They say ‘Ahh what the fuck is going on?’”

“I can be working on the sculptures and still feel like a rocker,” he said with palpable happiness.

But it is Sunbird that is his homage to his home island, a place he is trying to figure out how to return to full time. “I’m definitely trying to turn the ship toward home, and hope I can find a space for a studio,” he said.

“The Vineyard nurtures artists in a wonderful way. The land and emptiness of the winter does something for you.”

You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.